Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Minis: J.Porcellino, H.Simple, J.Allen

King-Cat Comix #76, by John Porcellino. After the intense and incredibly touching Maisie Kukoc tribute in KC #75, this is a more low-key, odds-and-ends sort of issue. It's one of the rare issues where there's almost as much text (in the form of letters, an introductory essay, and the KC Top Forty) as there are comics. Most of the comics are short and frequently whimsical, like a drawing of radishes that includes different people's opinions about them. There's an aborted dream take of the city/country mouse story that involved some nice drawings of Chicago and the sort of visceral memory of weather that makes John P's comics so memorable. Along those lines, there was a memory of living in a cold apartment, frying up burgers, listening to sports radio and trying to draw with cheap gloves on. It's the kind of story where Porcellino documents the sheer misery of daily existence, the oppressive loneliness of his chosen life, and yet finds a way through. He works on his comic. He gets out of the house. He might be miserable but he doesn't stop trying. It's here where his eye for small details is so important, because it's in relating these details in terms of how they felt but in a mostly visual manner that gives his comics so much power.

That's why his comics are such an emotional gut punch. By paring away all but the most essential details, Porcellino is able to make feelings very clear in a way that a more naturalistic or text-heavy approach would not just render trite, the aesthetic that he's trying to explore simply wouldn't come across at all. When he does choose to use text as the primary vehicle of his poetic expression, the drawings become a little more supportive and utilitarian, like the "January Poem" about him running around his cold yard in his underwear to chase the cat. There are other brief observations, like hearing the sound of a cardinal while taking out the trash, that speak to the way that Porcellino looks at and thinks about the world, even as so much as life is a struggle. That he is able to render struggle and the smallest of joys about being alive with equal clarity speaks to his understanding of how all of these aspects of life form our aesthetic point of view.

Ohio Is For Sale #9, by Jon Allen. The latest issue of Allen's ongoing saga about a group of slackers takes place a few issues after the collection that I reviewed a few weeks back, but it wasn't hard to figure out what was going on. The issue features Julian, the scumbag boyfriend of Dana, and his attempts at actually trying not to be a leach. It also features series regular Patrick, the writer who constantly faces a blank sheet of paper on his typewriter. As always, Allen uses a simple foundation to build stories that have considerable visual and narrative complexity, as well as a healthy slice of perversity. Allen starts with a simple three or four panel grid per square page, reflecting each issue's origin as a webcomic. The panel borders are unusually thick for a comic, as he gives each panel a lot of weight but also mashes them together a bit to form a dark gestalt. He uses anthropomorphic animals as his characters, which allows him to go as simple or as over-the-top as he wants to be at any given time. It also allows him to use magical realism when that seems the thing to do or intense violence, like in this issue. Every character tends to get what they deserve in this comic. Julian sells his stuff to help make rent at a hilariously redneck pawnshop filled with meth-heads, calling Patrick to help him. Meanwhile, Dana essentially enables Julian throughout the rest of the comic, and then she has her bag stolen. For a comic that can seem so episodic at times, Allen is a surprisingly tight plotter, as the subplot with the stolen bag smashes into Julian taking the money from the pawn shop and wasting it on a night out at a bar, and then getting into a fight with two thugs when he sees his girlfriend's bag. It's yet another dark, funny ending reminiscent of a Peter Bagge comic for Allen.

Holly's Whore Haus #1, by Holly Simple. With art and subject matter very much in the vein of Meghan Turbitt, Simple's story of she and her "best friends" (the characters on her keychain) going up against her nemesis Killer Bae and her crew at the "Sexy Awards". The comic is in part an exploration and send-up of conventional beauty, style and personality as it flashes back to the ways in which the conventionally attractive KB was a constant thorn in her side, in part because of the ways she embodied the bland, conservative nature of conventional attractiveness (in both appearance and behavior) are determined by men. The segment of the comic where Holly is getting her crew ready to compete by getting their hair done, dressing more feminine, willingness to perform and above all else, to be slutty, is hilarious, because she's putting a troll doll, a unicorn and a regular doll into ridiculous and slutty outfits. Despite Holly's crew going all out, Killer Bae wins easily, because dudes are always going to choose women wanting this particular kind of attention that are conventionally attractive. There are actually a lot of complicated emotions in this comic. On one level, this is obviously a feminist statement and condemnation of the male gaze, only done in the most obscene,  hilarious and over-the-top manner possible. At the same time, there's also a longing to have been accepted for being unique and weird, to have received the same kind of approval as KB. And at a different level, there's a visceral sense of wanting to be like KB, of wishing to be that woman and girl who gets conventional approval, but also a sense of self-hatred for wanting nothing less than to be the avid subject of objectification. The comic is colorful, grotesque and warped in terms of its drawings while keeping the reader's eye on the subjects and the wacky stuff that they're involved with. It's also powerful and to the point. I'd love to see more comics from her.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Minis: Ricky Miller/Julia Scheele, Colin Lidston

The Age Of Elves #1, by Colin Lidston. This mini (published by Robyn Chapman's Paper Rocket Mini Comics) is a bit of a rarity these days: a straight-ahead, slice of life story. These used to be as common as autobio back in the 90s but it's a kind of storytelling that's fallen a bit out of favor these days. The story is going to be familiar to many comics readers, as it's about a group of friends who happen to play fantasy role-playing games together. It's set in the year 2000 and the initial focus of the story is on Sarah, one of four high-schoolers who are getting set to go to a big gaming convention. She has dreams of being a fantasy illustrator and the story begins with her showing her portfolio to her high school art teacher and then talking with her dad. There's a diner scene where she argues about the film Pulp Fiction with her friends Evan and Jamie, and then there's a montage of game-playing at their friend Bram's house.

This issue is in every sense an establishing point meant to set mood and give the reader a sense of the story's pace and stakes. It is unspoken, but it is also clearly a story of finding your tribe after not fitting in (the time period is key, as geek culture had not yet completely overtaken popular culture at that point) and finding ways to express your dreams. Evan is a familiar sort of character as the sort of Asperger's-spectrum literalist who is often drawn to gaming, and while Bram does not utter a word in the story, it's clear that he comes from a socially awkward place as well. These characters are the bizarro Eltingville Club, as their love of gaming and fantasy has become fused with their friendships in a positive way, as opposed to the possessive and competitive manner of those Evan Dorkin. It's a case of having specialized interests and knowledge and choosing to share that knowledge and spread it as opposed to hoarding it as a hard-won treasure. There is a warmth that Lidston expresses in this modest story that has everything to do with his drawing. The body language of the characters when they're gaming is comfortable and grows moreso as the evening goes on and the natural introverts fully commit to forming connections. Lidston uses a loose but naturalistic style that allows for a few grotesque flourishes here and there; none of his characters are conventionally attractive, and he takes advantage of this to emphasize their humanity and connection rather than as objects of ridicule. The verisimilitude of the dialogue is another key to the issue's success, and I imagine future issues will zero in on particular hopes and dreams of all the characters, as well as dissect the group's dynamic. All the reader needs to know with this issue is that these four people are friends who genuinely enjoy spending time with each other.

Metroland #2 & #3, by Ricky Miller, Julia Scheele, et al. The first issue of the series introduced us to Ricky Stardust and Jessica Hill, two members of a band called Electric Dreams. Jessica had a profound impact on Ricky's life in a story that might be labeled speculative musical fiction. The world as we know it is slightly different, mostly in terms of its music, which was initially revealed when a poster for a Beatles reunion tour was seen on a building. Everyone who met Jessica knows there was something strange about her, but only Ricky (who would disappear for days at a time with her) knew the truth. At the end of the first issue, we see Jessica pull Ricky through a mirror in a club called Metroland, off to what we presume is some kind of fantasy world.

As it turns out, as we see in these next two issues, that wasn't quite it. Issue two is told through the point of view of Kathy, the forceful and charismatic keyboardist of the band, who has apocalyptic dreams. Her life is kind of a mess and gets worse when Kurt Cobain kills himself...in the year 2014. She loses her job, she's worried about the band's future and her Five-Year-Club (formed by David Bowie enthusiasts who feel like they can figure out the date the world will end) is made all the more dramatic when she declares that the date of the apocalypse came to her in a dream. Meanwhile, Jessica has apparently gone for good and Ricky is increasingly despondent and erratic as a result. The third issue starts to make plain what had been hinted at, thanks to the band's roadie being hired by two members of the band to find out more information about the relationship of Ricky & Jess.

The third issue is quite a bit of fun as a result of the fleshing out of alternate music history, conspiracy theories and internet paranoia--all of which is true. As it turns out, Jessica came from the future to observe and influence various musical scenes, and Ricky became part of it. He went back in the past and "fixed" things: helping Brian Wilson finish Smile, stopping John Lennon's killer, making sure that Janis Joplin didn't die, getting Elvis healthy, etc. The problem is that in the modern day, Ricky (who became the producer Ricky Starwalker in the past) is having trouble keeping things together, which leads Kathy and others to believe that the whole world will come crashing down. Miller takes the reader down some surprisingly byzantine paths with the time-travel and reality-altering qualities of the story, but always keeps it anchored in the band's dynamics. Miller also introduces a wild-card: the fact that Jessica has a daughter who lives in the future and idealizes the music of the past like her mother.

This is the story not just about a band, but the ways in which bands are fragile, can grow and mutate and oftentimes cease to exist. Scheele keeps everything grounded with her superb character design and understanding of body language. The humor in the book is often down to the way she draws the characters reacting to one another. The contrast in pink and midnight blue as the book's two tones reflect the conflict between the dreaminess of life in pink and the darkness and uncertainty that are represented by midnight blue. This is a story about finding in-between places, creating magic in tiny pockets of time and immortalizing those fragile moments of collaboration. Ricky's story is one where he cannot be satisfied with those moments and tries to find a cheat code to make them last forever, and this issue starts to reveal the implications of the problems that come with taking shortcuts.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Josh Neufeld & Sari Wilson's Flashed

One thing that a number of Xeric Generation cartoonists (those between about forty and fifty-five years old or so) have in common is an interest in comics formalism, often expressed through the OaBaPo method. This is a series of comics-drawing games that use certain constrictions, like drawing all characters in silhouette, or including the image in every third panel, etc. to challenge cartoonists to use creative solutions for these problems. In many respects, formalism simply implies an awareness of the actual form of comics and how it can be manipulated to produce certain kinds of effects. A lot of comics-as-poetry leans heavily on formalist techniques, for example. In the case of Josh Neufeld, he's done things like comics drawn with his non-dominant hand as well as travelogues told from the point of view of strangers he encountered. Working with his partner Sari Wilson, who is a writer, they put together a collection of "flash" fiction and comics called Flashed. One of the constraints here is a comics story of no more than four pages and a short story of no more than a thousand words. The biggest constraint, and what makes the collection interesting at times, is that three stories or comics would bundle together to form a sort of triplet with a common theme.

Neufeld & Wilson would choose a previously-published comic or short story as a seed. It would be handed over to the next cartoonist or writer (always at least one of each in each triplet), who would respond to the first piece in whatever way they saw fit. Then that second piece would be handed over to a third artist/writer, who would react only to the second piece; they were not allowed to see the first. There are fifteen such triplets in the book and thus forty-five artists, which had to have made for an intense amount of work for the editors, especially since they solicited and printed reactions from each artist about the process after every assignment in a triplet had been completed. That made the entire project unusually meta for an anthology, although I found the author responses to be some of the most interesting parts of the project. As I have written about nearly every anthology I've ever reviewed, this book was highly uneven. I probably would have cut it from fifteen triplets down to ten, because some of them were either difficult slogs to read (which is surprising for flash fiction), lacking substance or outright juvenile.

The "Cheating" triplet started off with some swaggeringly tedious Junot Diaz machismo in short story form, was followed by an absurd Nick Bertozzi strip about a guy who started to think that the tags on his girlfriend's underwear were sending a message, and then finished by Zoe Zolbrod's purple prose. It's one of the rare times I've felt angry after reading something due to the feeling of having my time wasted. Some of the other triplets, like "Shell Shocked" all took somewhat obvious approaches to their subjects; in this case, it was the subject of a soldier returning home to a lover. Some did little to add to a great seed, like in the "Frozen" section where a John Porcellino piece is rendered into something predictable and lacking the poetry of the original piece by Alan Gilbert. In "Venus & Mars", a sentimental piece about emotional pain by Dean Haspiel is turned into an S&M piece by Gina Frangelo and then a parody of S&M and academia by Jason Little. "Winter Walk" went into territory that was too esoteric and abstract at times and didn't hold together.

Sometimes, however, the combinations worked and some interesting connections were made. Kellie Wells drew straight from certain aspects of Lynda Barry's deeply, emotionally rich story "Lost Worlds", and Box Brown went into a completely different direction that nonetheless captured the quality of light that's difficult to quantify in its beauty. "Dystopias" showed that even when an author did not understand an element of the original story (like Anthony Tognazzini misunderstood Jessica Abel's original), they can turn it into something interesting. In this case, it took a story about a tragic highway accident into a bizarre conspiracy piece, and the cartoonist DW managed to double-down on this. A more direct example of teamwork was "Amerika", where Jen Camper started off with a goofy parody of a future fascist America (yikes!) that V.V. Ganeshananthan turned into a full-out dystopian tale with an open end that Tom Kaczynski picked up and completed in his trademark absurd but deadpan manner.

In other stories, the connections made just weren't that interesting or the deviation from original texts wasn't striking enough. That was true of triplets like "Awakenings", "Brothers", and "Leviathan". When the creators started with a weird or whimsical premise and were willing to keep it going, the stories were more interesting. "Bronte", for example, starts with stage directions for a scene about the death of Emily Bronte, continues with a comic by Ken Nash that transposes the setting to an office, and finishes with a story by Rob Walker that transposes it once again and shifts the point of view to a guy in a club. The through-line of barking dogs being transformed into a ringing phone and then finally the person making the call was especially clever, even if one is completely unaware of the history of the literary Bronte sisters. "Mutable Architecture" starts with a premise grounded in the mundane (living in a tiny city apartment) with the horrifying (a mysterious hole in the bathroom that takes on an increasingly disturbing quality) thanks to Gabrielle Bell. Jedidiah Berry's takes that premise and warps it in a positive way, as a landlady showing an apartment to a new tenant becomes younger and younger as the tenant finds more and more secret chambers. Carol Lay's scratchy and tenuous line flip the story around again, as the resident of a sinister house across the street from the apartment goes about his day. "Incommunicado" flips from a disaster-situation to a surreal party to an anatomy of a date and personal ad, with Michael Hinken's deranged final segment strongly capping off the weirdness. Finally, "Curses" finds Anna North and then Andrea Tsurumi doing different takes on disaster and superstition that are both emotionally resonant, and Ben Greeman finishes up with something far more frightening.

All told, this was an interesting experiment that was mostly worthwhile as a read, with a number of slow spots. One thing I noticed is the near-equal split in the number of male and female creators, which probably had something to do with the diversity in subject matter and storytelling styles. I'm not sure a second volume would make much sense, unless it was completely revamped with a new set of rules. Even more preferable would be a volume where every group had a completely different set of rules. The problem with these sorts of exercises is that they usually wind up being more interesting to those who participated in them as opposed to those who might want to read them, which is why a heavy editorial hand is so important. Still, I've never seen an anthology quite like this one, especially in the way it encouraged artists from two different disciplines to collaborate.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Koyama: Cathy Johnson's Gorgeous

Cathy Johnson's novella Gorgeous is interesting in that while it brings together an unlikely trio of characters (two punks and a college athlete), Johnson makes the unusual move of leaving one set of characters completely unchanged by the encounter (the punks) but puts the college student through a profound aesthetic change. The sixty-page comic is a visual feast, as Johnson uses a pencil-heavy style to create different shades of night and light throughout the book, along with details like a bruised eye. The facial features are deliberately simplistic and angular to provide a maximum and immediate level of emotional impact. Johnson made the moods and motives of Sophie the college student and the two nameless punks obvious before they even said a word. In some ways, this directness was a strength of the book, but the paper-thin characterizations of the punks was either a fault of the book or a failure to give Sophie a little more time and depth of character.

The punk guy, who stole a guitar from a show he attended with his girlfriend, was a punk of the "wants to see the world burn" variety. Or rather, he is so self-loathing that he's not willing to actually put any effort into the few things he's actually passionate about, for fear of failure. He's in constant self-denial and uninterested in ever taking responsibility for his own actions. For example, he blames Sophie for not swerving out of the way out of the car accident that brought them together, when the crash was caused by he and his girlfriend arguing. His girlfriend isn't much better, as she goes along with all of his decisions, up to and including Sophie's purse when she goes to the bathroom in the diner they're in as they wait for morning to come to fix her car. During their conversation, they pummel her from two fronts: he attacks her for going to college and for being part of the system, and not doing what she really wants to do. She more gently attacks Sophie for failing to see what is beautiful in the world. Clearly both physically and emotionally drained, Sophie offers no defense, and to be fair, they both come off as abusive, especially since they literally put her in this position. The price of their "wisdom" was betraying her trust and stealing her purse without an ounce of remorse; indeed, any human compassion they showed in helping her out of her car and calling AAA had totally subsided by the time the crisis passed.

Not all people develop and mature, and while the punks felt like cliches (especially the guy), they were cliches that had some verisimilitude. The punks were in denial about what they hated about themselves (even their intimacy) and loudly proclaimed that they were happy doing precisely what they were doing in an effort to convince themselves, mostly. In that way, they made sense not just as plot devices but as models of what not to do. By the end of the story, the seemingly timid Sophie owns her situation, meets the challenge of making it to her weightlifting meet, and even wins her event. At the same time, she remembers that what she really wanted to do was write poetry, and she misses it. What's implied is a lifetime of not getting to do what she wants, of having a parent who is supportive but very specifically demanding, The reader only gets a whiff of who she is and what she might become, and I'm not sure if Johnson was setting up the punks as red herrings or a feint with regard to how much time the reader spends with them and learns about them compared to Sophie. I was left wanting just a little more information grounding all of the characters as more than just types, but still impressed by Johnson's storytelling skills.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Koyama/Space Face: Michael DeForge's Trophies, Lose #7, Dressing

In addition to being a cartoonist, Michael DeForge also does quite a bit of illustration work. Space Face Books published a collection of some of those illo jobs in a broadsheet titled Trophies, a fitting name for an item that's a bit of a DeForge collectible as well as a record of DeForge's own illustration trophies. DeForge is an ideal illustrator for someone who wants an image that will catch the eye, no matter what it's advertising. For DeForge, this has evolved from his days when he mostly worked in black & white and thus made intricately and even obsessively illustrated drawings that emphasized grotesque and even horrific images to something more layered and sophisticated. Since working mostly in color, he hasn't had to rely on that level of detail, instead using unsettling design and figure drawings that were simplified so as to emphasize specifically unsettling details. Be it a figure in the water who's been stung repeatedly by a bee, variations on his wolf or Leather Space Man aesthetic (the predator vs the unsettling observer), or even an interest in combining psychedelia with huge swathes of negative space (like for a Speedy Ortiz concert poster), one can see how DeForge uses this venue for his drawings as a kind of laboratory that allows him to work out and work on specific visual ideas that he might incorporate into later work, or else it's an aesthetic approach that has really drawn him in (the classic DeForge melting figure).

Speaking of DeForge's laboratory, a new issue of Lose can be considered a peek into his current aesthetic interests. #7 features three stories, all of which are about body transformation and its larger implications. The first story is a kind of childish game, the sort where if someone told you to hold your breath and cross your eyes then your face would get frozen or something. In this case, it was a highly detailed method to make one's head bigger so that one resembles an adult. In the story, this led to it being a fun game of "parent and child" and quickly warped into a power game where the "parent" wound up putting her "son" in jail. It's a very Foucault way of looking at relationships as power relationships.

The third story aesthetically sees DeForge move in a direction closer to Big Kids in terms of the design of the boy who is also a bird: a face with six furry appendages flapping about like a Dr Seuss drawing. The bird/boy is aware enough to realize that his state is less than ideal; it's a transformation or evolution that's in fact quite stupid, as he can never really be a bird or a boy. He's drawn to the ornithologist who studies him and she tells him that she longs to be like him, but that she can't have a relationship with a subject. The bird boy finds her desires to be like him to be as stupid and baffling as his own existence is. This story is interesting because it's a brutal takedown of startling surface beauty being utterly pointless if there's no utility or possibility of meaningful contact that can go along with it.

The second story, "Movie Star", is the longest of the book, and it's one of DeForge's best. It touches on family, transformation and alienation. A young woman named Kim is living with and taking care of her ailing father, who is constantly on her case and refuses to listen to anything she has to say. In one of her daily runs (a key metaphor), she happens across some Blu-Rays on the street and she watches them with her dad, who has a contrary opinion from her on each and every one. She does notice that in a dumb action film, there's a buff guy who looks exactly like her dad, which he dismisses as nonsense even though he was adopted and doesn't know anything about his birth family. Things start to escalate when she comes home and the actor is there being chummy with her dad, as they discover that they are related. He spends more and more time with him and his wife, to the point where they both start having sex with her and he decides to essentially cut Kim out of his life for his new life. At every turn, Kim is gaslighted by her father and told to get a job, and every bit of "growth" that he makes is entirely at her expense. Every slow reveal astounds more and more as Kim is slowly pushed out of his life after previously being entirely dependent on her. Visually, it's among DeForge's more conventional comics, with a fairly unwavering eight-panel grid and a thin line that almost seems like a Chris Ware homage at times. It once again makes that point that not all transformation is growth, and it in fact can induce myopia and narcissism.

Dressing is another crucial Koyama Press collection of DeForge's short stories from all over the place: minicomics, anthologies, etc. The title of the collection refers to the idea of dressing up, of changing identity, and of being in the process of dressing or transformation. The first piece, "Flu Drawings" is about a teenage boy who's drawn the attention of an older teenage girl, until one day she makes him dry her off after a shower and then after she models some outfits, she makes him put on some of her outfits and makeup. What's interesting about the story, apart from its erotic content, is that the narrator notes that the experience was not only not transformative for him in terms of identity, it actually allowed him to see what his future self would look like. There's an intricacy and decorative quality to these illustrations that adds to the story's tension. On the other hand, "Mars Is My Last Hope" is all about the desperate need for transformation for a group of humans colonizing Mars, because the Earth had become uninhabitable. Success meant not only their bodies transforming into something more appropriate for Mars, it meant human language slipping away as well, with only the concept of erotic desire remaining. "Dot Com" follows up on that run of stories about desire, this time commodified in some vague way by a dot.com business that specializes in mermaids. It's a brilliant parody of corporate speak that clearly indicated just how much trouble that business was really in.

"My Sister Dropped Dead From The Heat" was a brutal, almost obsessive sketchbook exercise about a relentless death march, while "Websites" explored involuntary identity transformation by way of the internet through a law firm that no doubt engineered it. It's DeForge exploring dystopias and Kafkaesque nightmares, as is "Redundancies", which is about the government outlawing twins, triplets, etc for population control reasons and the resistance that springs up against it that's ultimately doomed to failure. "Christmas Dinner" is about the worst possible holiday meal imaginable, played out on a beautiful table filled with filled by tiny, violent little creatures. "Elves" is a Santa conspiracy tale, while "Wet Animals" is a hilarious story about desire and "flirt fish" gone defective; instead of issuing come-ons, they started issuing insults, all in the background of one woman's crush that went to a very strange place.

"My Interesting Mother, One Billion Miles" is the prototypical DeForge piece in that it presents an absurd premise (in this case, a leaping mother) as defacto reality. "Actual Trouble" uses a slightly nauseating color palette to discuss both the long term (a guy thinking about the entirety of his life and and how he wound up as a teacher) with the immediate (his boyfriend's inability to get rid of his erection). "Gun Cats" is both funny and a little more on the nose than usual for DeForge, as local animals are given guns by the authorities in order to make environmental activists look bad, resulting in all kinds of deaths. "Tiny Opthamologist" short-circuits its own narrative of control and transformation as all parties involved admit to the ridiculousness of the situation. Finally, "All Of My Friends, Up High, In A Jumbo Jet" is an aesthetic rhyme for the book's first story in that it's illustrated text rather than a comic, its action is mostly abstracted and it has a deliberately vague conclusion. The material here overall isn't as strong as in Lose or his most recent comics, but it also shows how DeForge has both refined and expanded his aesthetic.

Monday, February 20, 2017

D&Q Michael DeForge: Big Kids and First Year Healthy

Michael DeForge continues to be one of the most prolific and aesthetically curious cartoonists around. While exploring a number of the same themes, his visual approach shifts, mutates and warps from project to project, having cycled through the artists he admires and moved on to his own set of changing strategies. Rites of passage have often been a resonant theme for DeForge, because transformation in general is something he seems to be fascinated by. In particular, the idea of something being irreversibly changed and then being forced to adapt to a new life, be it positive or negative, is a pretty regular theme for him. In Big Kids, the transformation from human form to tree form is not just a metaphor for adolescence, but rather a metaphor for a certain kind of awareness of the world that not everyone possesses.

A teenage boy named Adam is constantly being beaten up by the kids at school, but he also is happy that he is sexually active and has a boyfriend. The book opens with Adam trying to describe memories: of the way people looked, smelled, tasted, etc. It reads much like a past-tense journal of some kind, as though something traumatic had occurred to make him think about life in those terms. Instead, the "change" occurs, which not only alters Adam's perception and understanding of the world, but it also sees DeForge transforming his line into something that was still comics (he rarely wavered from the six-panel grid) but that also resembled a Wassily Kandinsky painting. In this new aesthetic understanding of the world, it was explained to Adam that he was now a tree, which gave him several levels of sensory understanding and experience that he did not possess before. Those who had not yet made the change (including most of the people he knew at school) were referred to as twigs, because that's precisely what they looked like. What was interesting was that many adults were still twigs, including both his asshole cop uncle and his left-leaning reporter dad, implying that neither were ready to evolve or even understood what that could mean.

While the change to a tree often occurred at puberty or first sexual experience (which made his mom, also a tree, very uncomfortable to think about), it didn't always happen. Nor did the transformation include any kind of real enlightenment. Simply put, there was just a greater awareness of one's environment. It didn't give one any ethical or moral enlightenment, as the actions of Adam and others showed in the back half of the book. Whereas his uncle was once a threatening bully, he was now a twig to be easily flicked away. A lecture from his father about the use of violence barely registered. His miserable mother voluntarily went from being a tree back to being a twig so she could be freed of this awareness and happy with her husband again. In a brutal act, Adam turned his lover Tyson (the ex-boyfriend of his ex-boyfriend) back into a twig by physically peeling away his tree-ness. This was in reaction to what turned out to be a key subplot of the book: a computer program that allowed one to see one's old form in animation. When he saw his mother watch the animation and saw her weep, he knew this was something he should not have seen, and he transformed his shame into not just violence, but precisely the same act his mother was contemplating doing to herself. DeForge has often used body horror as a metaphor for transformations gone wrong, but this was body horror on a whole different level.

For the many scenes of tree perception, DeForge created an entirely different kind of visual language. The trees were figures with heads and eyes, arms and legs, etc, but they also had flower baskets. They saw the world in a way the looks warped but was described as simply "more". The "DeForge Detritus" often seen in his work is different in this book: it's more organized, indicative of being part of an ordered system rather than simply chaos. It's both beautiful and strange to look at, and while it may have its own logic, it seems clear that DeForge didn't want this aesthetic to be easily absorbed by human eyes. It is deliberately alienating, forcing the reader to consider the emotional landscape of the book more than its physical landscape. It's a blunt and direct book with subtle subtexts, and while there is obvious regret on the part of Adam, it only goes so far because the relationship between trees and twigs can only go so far. Allowing a lack of closure is ironically what makes this one of DeForge's most assured comics to date.

First Year Healthy (from 2014) takes a different approach, even as both books have a somewhat unreliable narrator. Instead of being a comic, this is closer to a children's book in terms of format with an illustration on each page with a clump of text. There are several different levels going on in the book, and it's not clear which of any of them are true, or if that even matters. The first level is the unnamed protagonist's perception of the world after coming out of a mental institution for an "outburst". The book has a lot of smart things to say about mental illness, not so much in terms of the experiencing of it, but how others perceive and treat you after such an outburst. For her, she was given a job by her brothers and cared for in that sense, but they kept her at arm's length otherwise, something she only understood much later. A running theme in the story is her dawning realization that her senses in many respects had become numbed to the possibility of dangers in the world. The reader is very much asked to wonder how much of what they read in this book is "true" vs being a hallucination of some kind, or an elaborate story made up to trick herself into ignoring reality.

Another level of the story, and this is aided by the format, is to consider the entire thing to be a fairy tale allegory or a bit of magical realism. That's not just because of the intervention of a "holy cat" mentioned early in the book in saving her life, but it's also the presence of the criminal who threatened to kill her like a big bad wolf figure or her suddenly being given the responsibility of taking care of a baby. Is the reader meant to think of these things as ordinary events given magical qualities (like her "hearing" the fish under the ice when it reality it was the ice cracking under her)? Did her slitting the criminal's neck with a knife cause another mental breakdown, leading to her seeing the holy cat? Or was it the realization that she was truly alone while wandering through the forest, trying to escape but finding nowhere to escape to that broke her down? Or was all of it real? DeForge provides no easy answers, just clues to be picked up on, clues that sometimes discussed how consensus reality can mean different things for people from different cultures.

Through it all, the reader is meant to wonder what form the protagonist's original outburst took. Was it a public breakdown where she screamed at those around her? Was it a public and messy suicide attempt? Or was it strange behavior that violated social mores? Throughout the story as we see her in that titular first year, she is kind, supportive and unquestioning. Perhaps she should have been less naive and more aware of her circumstances. She appears to be someone with no boundaries, for good or ill, as she moved in with "the Turk", a co-worker, after a little while and never once questioned his job as a crime boss' thug. When suddenly presented with taking care of his infant son, she tried to breastfeed him, a gesture that was done less of feeling maternal and more of feeling curious, as though she was playing a game with herself to see what it would be like--as though she was crossing a frozen lake. Her behavior is clearly atypical, but DeForge once again makes the reader ask precisely what unhealthy means in this context. Did she retreat into fantasy at the end of the story, or did she simply enter into a different level of consensus reality, like Adam did in Big Kids? What DeForge suggests is that all of these answers are right and wrong in their own way. Visually, the characters are classic mid-period DeForge: distorted and exaggerated hair, tiny bodies that look like Peanuts characters, grotesque facial features and a mostly ugly color palette that looks like bruises, with the exception of the holy cat, who's almost an Aslan-type figure.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Minis: Magic Whistle 3.2 and 3.3

Issue 3.2 and 3.3 of Magic Whistle (Alternative) find co-editor Sam Henderson (along with Marc Arsenault and David Nuss) still fiddling around with the anthology's format. Number 3.2 is in regular comic-book size and looks great, giving the gags more space on each page to breathe. Number 3.3 went back to the old mini-comics sized version, but this special X-mas issue is done in two colors (red and green, of course, by Jim Campbell). The bigger format was clearly better, but I hope future issues continue to feature color. The cover for 3.2 is a stand-out, with Danny Hellman illustrating a bedraggled Henderson in the future in front of a Dirty Danny statue somewhere, pleading "I created him, you know!" This is of course one of many inside jokes gone amok in Henderson's comics, as he created the Dirty Danny character as a take-off on a nickname Hellman held for a bit when he did a lot of illustration jobs for magazines like Screw.

Henderson has been recruiting both young humorists as well as welcoming back old pros. Issue 3.2 starts with a perfect fit with the slightly grotesque line of Tom Van Deusen, whose story about amazon.com's Jeff Bezos being a whiny crybaby who has to get his way all the time and is incapable of doing actual work on his own is not just funny in an over-the-top way, it eerily mimics the behavior of those in charge of the country at the moment. Seeing Bezos tromp around in a giant robot and then smashing up a Starbucks because he can't get his coffee quick enough is hilarious, especially when he decides to take a nap in the middle of the street inside his robot. Everything about every line of Van Deusen's art is grotesque, unflattering and revealing. Amy Lockhart takes the grotesque factor up a notch--not in terms of her drawing, which is deliberately minimalist--but in terms of the behavior of her characters. One of whom is a woman desperate for love who adopts a puppy and lavishes ridiculous amounts of love on it, and the other is why she bought the puppy--her abusive boyfriend that she's relentlessly devoted to, who at first wants to kill the puppy and then starts to love it after she gets injured and starts bleeding. It's abuse-speak in its most exaggerated but naked guise on the parts of both parties, which is why the laughs one gets from it are so uncomfortable.

Brigid Deacon's three one-page strips are all six-panel grids with variations on single round objects, like the sun, fried eggs, and a rotten tooth, all in various states of decay. Devin Flynn uses a dense, ink-heavy style to make a joke about sex and death, while the highlight of the issue for me was seeing new work from the legendary Seth Cooper (of Paper Rodeo fame). This new "Zissy & Rita" strip was a parody of Adventure Time and role playing games, with Zissy roleplaying a princess and failing miserably, as a bad role destroyed everyone in her kingdom. Things start to get even weirder when the ever-cynical Rita joins in on the game and she wants to go hang out with some evil witches because they can conjure black drugs. Matthew Thurber sites Cooper as an influence, and I'm not sure Simon Hanselmann has seen his work, but there seems to be a connection there as well. Cooper at heart is a storyteller, and there are rock-solid storytelling fundamentals underneath all the weird silliness, which is what makes his work so compulsively readable. Hopefully some sensible person will collect the 25+ years of material he's done.

As far as Henderson's work went in this issue, the highlight was the long, shaggy-dog story "The Berry Bedford Driggs Estate", which is about a dying billionaire who's looking for a worthy person to inherit all of his wealth. Henderson adorns his typically simple character design with all sorts of decorative aspects, like heavily hatched drapes, cross-hatching in other panels and a black & white checkerboard pattern on the floor. Henderson then flips everything with regard to that formula with "I Don't Even Know Anymore", a long story with absurdist rules that intentionally defy logic yet still remain consistent with its premise. There's also some more Cappy Jennings in this issue, but it's so highly abbreviated that I'm not sure why he bothered to put it in this issue.

What's remarkable about Magic Whistle 3.3 is that Henderson put together yet another set of guest-stars for his anthology without duplicating a single cartoonist from any of the five prior attempts at this he had made. He led with the great Steven "Ribs" Weissman doing a take on Henderson's own absurd, obscene "Lonely Robot Duckling" character. Despite the difference in styles, Weissman's version works because his scratchy, stiff line fit well with the inevitable horrible things that happen to those who happen upon the Lonely Robot Duckling. Jen Sandwich's anthropomorphic autobio was amusing, thought not the sort of thing that I would expect in an issue of Magic Whistle. There were moments of humorous insights rather than actual laughs in this story. Long-time veteran Roy Tompkins makes great use of the green and red to create an almost 3-D effect to go with this grotesque exploration of the moon, with lots of wrinkled monsters and other assorted weirdness. Corinne Halbert's lurid strip resembles something Eamon Espey might due in terms of its violence, gore and bodies being eaten by worms, along with a peeping-tom joke.

Henderson turns to holiday versions of his greatest hits, including a Dirty Danny strip involving poo and another featuring "What Would Dirty Danny Do?" (like putting dildos on the christmas tree), the odious "He Aims To Please" at a holiday party and getting kicked out because he's a pervert, Gunther Bumpus getting stuck in the catflap again and getting abused by Santa, and Mr Slitzka abusing people at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas because he's Jewish. Henderson also includes an indecipherable flow chart about the holidays, a strip about a guy who vomits christmas presents, and a filthy story about a snowman coming to life. There are also some reprints from old issues of Puck magazine that are very difficult to read in this small format. This issue (despite the eye-popping Tony Millionaire cover) wasn't quite as strong as the previous one, but it also shows that Henderson is willing to take chances. Right now, there's no one willing to take the chance to do a comedy anthology, and Henderson is willing to put his own work on the line in such an endeavor.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Minis: The Ladybroad Ledger, The Magic Whistle

The Ladybroad Ledger, edited by Stephanie Zuppo. Billed as "Vermont's Femme Alt Comics Collective", this broadsheet is distributed for free throughout Vermont and not surprisingly has a lot of cartoonists who have or are attending the Center for Cartoon Studies. The cover strip went to Glynnis Fawkes, an illustrator and cartoonist who specializes in stories about ancient Greece and Greek mythology. In hues of dark orange, brown and red, she spins a tale of someone dressed as a minotaur who seduces a young woman away from the party they're attending to another "party" in his labyrinth. It's a chilling scene, made all the moreso by pursuers who came along later in an effort to rescue her. Fawkes' ability to inject charm and even whimsy into what is in reality a horrifying situation gives this strip a certain tension that continues to ramp up until the end. Julianna Brazill offers an appreciation of the Apsen tree, which is as much a tree colony as it is a single organism, while Bridget Comeau offers up a sharply-drawn recipe for "Finnish Pie".

Rachel Lindsay's silly exercise about an imaginary relationship between a highly evolved Luna bar and a rugged Clif bar was hilarious--especially the ending, when the customer she's telling the story to walks away. I had seen Iona Fox's comics before in one of her minis, but it's always nice seeing her unusual character design that's a touch on the grotesque side. Kelly Swann's naturalistic take on the life of a woman inspired by her gravesite was effective in its evocation of what made her tick, while Michelle Sayles' political cartoons are well-rendered but more than a little over the top. Zuppo's strip about an unscrupulous funeral director trying to secretly upsell her family on a casket was outraging. Angela Boyle tends to draw about interesting species of nature, and her strip here was a mysterious and silent story about a young woman finding the remains of what looked like a great whale on land as she tries to capture what look like tiny seed pods. Susan Norton's strip is an extended metaphor about drifting though life as an as astronaut drifts in orbit, finding solace upon being back on earth, albeit sitting around a campfire. Sandy Bartholomew's finely-rendered strips explore the nature of character dynamics in relationships as well as some brutal commentary about not just heat & passion, but also about how she reacts to guns and gun culture. The strips are both funny and harrowing, especially one where she's being given a spiel by a gun salesman that emphasizes things like stopping power. Finally, Laura Martin's distinctive use of blacks highlights an obliquely-told story about a masked ball and the mysterious intentions of one participant in particular. All told, this is a stylish broadsheet with a number of different storytelling approaches, with a solid level of craft throughout.

The Magic Whistle, Volume II #15, Volume III #3.0. All edited by Sam Henderson, Marc Arsenault, and David Nuss. After years of publishing Magic Whistle as a solo minicomic, the last three issues of MW Volume II were devoted to establishing a humor anthology, with several guest artists per issue. With Volume III Henderson has made that the primary mission of each issue, with a wide variety of comics veterans as well as new artists given space for their work. Henderson's sense of humor has always simultaneously been the silliest and the fundamentally smartest in all of comics, as his ability to break down the structure of a scenario like a guy continually getting stuck in a dogflap or how having an extra ass is hilarious on an almost scientific basis. His comics range from that visual/verbal split in the form of gags or longer narratives, always building to a punchline but often undermining that punchline with a deconstruction of the gag that is in itself hilarious.

MW #15 was the last in the old numbering format that Alternative Comics released. Henderson is pretty much a gag machine and can fill up dozens of pages, but his material works especially well when it's interspersed with other comedic approaches. Still, the "Your Ass Directed By" two-pager is Henderson at his absolute best, with eighteen ass jokes on two pages referring to Hollywood directors, each one intricately connected to their source material. The jokes about Ed Wood and Shia LeBoeuf are especially funny. Henderson's exaggerated autobio comics are also always highlights, like his "Mr Slitzka" feature starring an especially cruel physical education teacher and several running gags. "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do" is about a toxic couple who escalate cruel pranks on each other after their break-up, but Henderson puts on the brakes and whips out a far different and funnier punchline than the narrative initially suggested. "First Drafts" reimagines key lines from famous films as something extremely dumb ("we're going to need a bigger goat"), while jokes about the future, "Rom-Coms For Other Species" and "Famouser Firsts" read like really well-done MAD gags. An especially nasty and funny installment of the Dirty Danny saga (featuring Dirty Danny inviting people to a garbage island with no rules) caps off an especially strong issue for Henderson. Meghan Turbitt's interpretation of the Marvel character The Thing as a mother nursing an adult version of her was the usual kind of hyperkinetic weirdness from the artist, while Steven Kraan's crudely-drawn absurdities are a perfect fit for this issue. Top it off with a great Victor Cayro masturbation gag on the back cover and some reprints from old humor magazines, and you have a nearly perfect humor comic.

Magic Whistle 3.0 made plain what Henderson really wanted: an anthology humor periodical that included his own work. This first issue in the new format (keeping the same minicomics size) featured a running "Sid & Sid" feature from John Brodowski, which included an art museum devoted to paintings about horror movies, a bell jar craft exhibit featuring butterflies and tiny replicas of authors committing suicide, a momentous undersea archaeological find in the form of a sponge with square pants, and horrifying first contact with aliens in the shape of clowns. JB's comics have always been funny, but he comes down more on the side of straight gags than the funny but unsettling material he usually does.  Manuel Gomez Burns' rubbery figures are as sharp a contrast from Henderson's deliberately crude figures as Brodowski's naturalistic style is, but Burns' work is similar in that it works on a conceptual as well as visual level in deconstructing time and space in a comics panel.

Henderson's comics often have a vicious quality to them as well, and Leah Wishnia's revenge comic about creating the perfect spitball to destroy someone who slighted her fits right in, Her gleefully crude line and over-the-top demonic explosions at the end are hilariously cruel and give the comic a greater  edge. Ansis Purins is another cartoonist who mixes humor and horror, and his comic here is no exception, as it follows two brothers (a jock and a nerd who can't be separated from his tablet) going out into nature. The jock berates his brother and throws away his tablet but feels bad--until he's confronted by an army of monsters and zombies. His younger brother saves him and they bond over smashing monsters together. This comic gets its humor from the action as it does from a particular gag or concept, making for another departure in the comic. Speaking of violence, Jesse McManus takes the characters from Henderson's old Nickelodeon comic, "Scene But Not Heard" and puts them through ultra-violent and psychedelic paces in a way that honors the originals but adds McManus' own trippy and slightly rubbery line as his own signature. The real find of the issue was Peter Bagge digging up some old comics from his older brother Doug, which happen to be absurd, angry and highly pointed. Bagge wasn't exaggerating when he said that drawing comics and being funny came naturally for his brother, who lost interest in them prior to dying young. These comics are a fantastic find and point to Henderson as not just a humorist, but someone who thinks constantly about the craft and history of comics. The way he likes to include reprints of old humor magazines also points to this, and it made for a remarkably rich issue.

Henderson went out of his way to up his own game, with a joke about what chewing gum is called in each state that's a parody of the sort of infographic one might see on Facebook. He actually went the extra mile of coming up with one for each state, including items like "Goof Pickles", "Nobody's Applesauce" and "Windowless Christmas". There's the serial "The Cappy Jennings Story", about a popular 1950s comedian whose catchphrase is "Look at my ass!", and his rise and fall. It's the prototypical Henderson long-form comic in that it provides a warped view of history that still feels familiar and pairs it up with an incredibly stupid punchline. Henderson also included his share of single-panel gag strips, this time acting as interstitial material instead of as the meat of the comic--a role they are perfectly suited for. The next two issues of Magic Whistle, which I'll be reviewing tomorrow, have a slightly different format.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Minis: E.K. Williams, MariNaomi, Sophia Foster-Dimino

Babybel Wax Bodysuit, by Eric Kostiuk Williams (Retrofit). Williams pulls off a star turn in his first Retrofit comic, using color for maximum effect after publishing his earlier comics in black & white. The conceit of the fluidity of form in the object of the red wax on cheese is remarkably effective, especially in the way that Williams likes to warp and bend reality and physical forms. Williams' comics are a mixture of the cheeky, the philosophical, the intellectual, the sexy and the emotionally intimate, and I love that metaphor of stripping something away to get at the really good stuff. This comic has a number of short stories, the standout being "The Literal Word", which is about teenage Williams becoming friends with an older, Christian, Republican woman on a comics forum. Using his fluid, melting style, Williams transforms himself into his avatar (Daredevil) and transforms his friend into a queen, since she was sort of the group's mother hen. It's a typically thoughtful, visually gripping and expressive story about learning things about others who are very different than you while at the same time finding your own way in life. In his case, it was discovering the gay club scene in college and slowly drifting away from her. Williams has some smart things to say about Facebook and how its algorithms discourage cross-cultural exchange while being nostalgic for his old internet support network.

In addition to a number of visually spectacular one-page strips (some straightforward, others surreal), the other big story was "Britney Jean 2116". You would expect a story about Britney Spears being preserved as a cyborg for Las Vegas shows in the year 2116 would be campy, and one would not be wrong. However, this story is less about camp and more a dystopian sci-fi story about commodification (a running theme of this comic) and loss of identity. It's a story that on the one hand appreciates her silly pop songs at face value, but also questions the corporate structure that pressured her and caused her so much anxiety. It's a fear that Williams worries about on a larger level as an artist, since he's concerned that his honest self-expression might eventually be appropriated and commodified aginst his will, either in his lifetime or beyond. Structuring it in a legitimately exciting sci-fi story makes it all the more fun, especially with an open-ended conclusion where Britney is not yet ready to join a larger revolution. Williams mixes politics, aesthetics, philosophical concept and his own hard-won wisdom in an ambitious stew that is distinctive in terms of its component parts being discernible but also forming something greater and more original than the simple sum of those parts. He does this with a supple line and a skill with both line and color that is already quite formidable.

I Thought YOU Hated ME, by MariNaomi (Retrofit). These are memoir comics at their most intimate, as MariNaomi examines an on-again, off-again friendship with enormous importance over a span of close to forty years. What I liked best about this story was MariNaomi's varied but always assured cartooning style that emphasized facial expression to such a degree that she was often able to excise virtually every other element from the page when the situation called for it. There's also a sharp tale told here about the ways in which personalities can change over time, as eight-year-old Mari was extremely shy, while her best friend's new friend, Mirabai, was a confident and even obnoxious tomboy. They often ganged up on her and made fun of her in a series of strips that were a deliberate homage to Charles Schulz's Peanuts strips: stumpy character design, deliberately simple facial features, etc. Along the way, something interesting happened: Mirabai became a genuine friend.

Another homage to Schulz, the famous "Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown as he's trying to kick it", is done twice here: first, in the same way, and second, where Mirabai actually puts the ball down and lets Mari kick it. That was beautifully symbolic of the closeness of their relationship, one where they shifted roles as Mari became the bad girl and Mirabai was the one who had no interest in smoking, doing drugs or losing her virginity as quickly as possible. Of course, despite her new coolness, Mari was pissed that the guys would fall for Mirabai instead of her, until she became resigned to the idea because Mirabai really was that great. When Mari ran away from home, Mirabai was there to help. When their twenties rolled around, neither understood just how fragile friendships can really be. Both floated in and out of each other's lives, thinking the other no longer wanted to be friends, until their mid-thirties.

What follows after that is a series of wonderful, intimate conversations about relationships, their pasts, their futures, debilitating diseases, professional successes and small moments spent together. The scenes of mutual, genuine affection get highly detailed, realistically drawn close-ups to emphasize not just their intimacy as friends, but an intimacy that's unique to them. Simpler drawings allow for the reader to identify with the characters with greater ease than more naturalistically- rendered drawings, and they also tend to move the action along with greater ease. With a realistic drawing that's a close-up, that's the artist's way of telling the reader to stop and take a long look at this image before moving on. This is ultimately a sweet and simple story that revolves around its story beats, which are as much about what is not said as what is directly expressed.

Vom Night, by Sophia Foster-Dimino. This is an interesting project, published by JMC Aggregate, which features a comic by Foster-Dimino and a download code for a song of the same name as the comic at bandcamp.com by gobbinjr, aka Emma Witmer. The song is dreamy and atmospheric, which fits nicely into SFD's narrative within a narrative. It's about a young woman who goes about her day as a cake decorator at a bakery who in her thoughts is telling someone (herself? an imaginary correspondent? something in-between?) a story about a dream that she's had. The story fills her every waking moment, especially when she's doing automatic activities like brushing her hair or walking to work. SFD's figure work here is incredibly satisfying just to look at, as the unnamed protagonist's slightly chunky body and long, red hair drawn to resemble a labyrinth at times gives each panel a certain presence. Her blank eyes betray the fact that she's not entirely there, even as she tries to be kind and sympathetic toward her co-workers. That's especially true of one co-worker who is concerned about her brother and later learns that he's in the hospital. What the co-worker mistakes for kindness and compassion is simply the protagonist doing her very best from spacing out again so that she can get back to telling herself her story. That said, when told that she's a good listener, she frowns and doesn't have anything to say to that, as it was clear that she was listening out of a sense of social obligation and politeness rather than genuine concern. This was a fascinating take on introversion and how unknowable the mind truly is, and it was the delicate, restrained quality of Foster-Dimino's line that made it so effective.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Conundrum: Jillian Fleck's Lake Jehovah

Jillian Fleck's debut book Lake Jehovah is the sort that an artist with a lot to say tends to throw at the world; there are multiple levels of meaning, metaphor and symbol in the comic that take a long time to unpack, along with a complex visual playbook that riffs on all sorts of formal tricks like the use of the grid and repeating visual motifs. Fortunately for the reader, Fleck was up to the task that she set for herself in telling a story of multiple apocalypses, mysterious illnesses, horny demons and talking animals, and a remarkable balance of the absurd and the deadly serious. Along the way, there's a serious examination of the value of poetry, the utility of language in general and a restless exploration of gender and sexuality, It's done with a humane and sympathetic take on all of the characters, no matter their experiences.

Whether one prefers to refer to it as magical realism or simply deeply symbolic, here's the book's plot. A young genderqueer person named Jay finds ximself diagnosed with Soft Disease, which is apparently a not uncommon diagnosis in a world that's experienced multiple apocalypses up to that point. Jay is constantly worried that xis partner, Mells, is going to leave xim, which in fact is exactly what happens, as Mells runs off with Jay's old professor Asterix. When Jay falls asleep for several months as a result, a number of odd things occur. First, Jay's writings have become a prophecy of the new apocalypse, and created a tourist industry as a result. (This is one of many cleverly sardonic touches in the book.) Jay encounters an old friend who dresses up as a spirit animal to give tours, meets two true believer Apocalypse Tourists, encounters a sleazy poet, the poet's demon drug dealer, a talking fox and what purports to be Jay's guardian angel. In the end, the apocalypse may or may not have happened, but Jay realizes that it doesn't really matter.

Let's unpack all of this. This is a comic that is primarily about mental illness and how that plays into relationships, real world difficulties and day-to-day survival. Jay is deeply depressed and anxious, exhibiting any number of mental illness symptoms, but most significantly is that of catastrophization. That is, every problem or fear is extrapolated so as to become a worst-case scenario. That depression is closely correlated to feelings of worthlessness and meaninglessness, especially when faced with any kind of perceived betrayal or rejection. Suicidal ideations become common. Anxiety is another major symptom described here as well. The exact diagnosis is less important than the symptoms in terms of the story, but the way they're described it could be anything from bipolar 2 to borderline personality disorder, with the latter seeming more likely.

How does this play out in terms of the story? A "soft disease" sounds like an apt description of mental illness. The apocalypses and the sense that the world is ending (especially when Jay's fiance leaves) fit right into that sense of imminent catastrophe, especially the fact that the world has seemingly ended multiple times in multiple ways. Suicide and self-harm are given form in the titular lake, whose name represents the cold judgement of an omnipotent god. When Jay confronts xis "guardian angel" at the end, it's at the bottom of the lake, with the full weight of god's judgment literally on top of them both.

Drugs are a big part of the book, and all they seem to do is magnify one's problems and self-image, not provide answers or refuge. It's no accident that the "guardian angel" avatar is the same lurid, day-glo color as Jay was when xe was on a serious trip; it's a huge ball of rage against everything in the world, especially ximself. There's a grueling scene where Jay in that mode brutally murders a vicious dog, which in itself was colored in the same way and thus feeling the same kind of rage. Meeting rage with rage, Fleck suggests, does nothing to actually address the root of that rage, that self-hatred that comes from a lack of self-worth.

Jay's antipathy toward poetry is another key aspect of the book. Xe hates it because xe regards it as a form of lying, of being indirect in communication. Jay's fiance Mells loves it precisely because some things cannot be expressed directly, that sometimes language is incapable of accurately capturing certain kinds of experiences in a straightforward manner. You have to talk around and through certain things to really deliver the message, which is especially funny because this comic makes great use of comics-as-poetry at times. The repeated use of tiny panels; the use of "rhyming" images to indicate patterns of behavior or portents of things to come and even the use and then breaking out of the grid to get at a sense of disorder are just a few examples of how Fleck's visual strategies reflect poetry, not to mention the heavy use of symbolism.

Another key to the comic is that no one is any more or less a sympathetic figure. When Jay finds ximself with a huge, gaping wound on xis stomach (and I don't believe it's a coincidence that the genderqueer Jay, who has a penis, would develop a wound with a labial shape), the wound winds up being xis real conscience. There are no apocalypses save the ones you make up. Jay's fiance' left because Jay had become mentally ill and was unwilling to recognize this, much less get help. Jay's pathological need to be reassured that a relationship would never end is what caused the relationship to split apart. Sex for Jay was not always a means of connection; it was sometimes a means of escape. Fleck makes it clear that Jay's problems are not imaginary; the world is an awful place in many ways, with toxic landscapes and violence & death lurking in so many places. There's always a personal doomsday that's about to arrive for someone in the world. Jay did have genuine mental illness issues and did have a loved one leave xim. The problem, Fleck suggests is taking those problems and turning them into something far worse, something monstrous.

Fleck's figurework is a little rough in some places, as her characters look somewhere between Archie characters and Simon Hanselmann's, with a strong understanding of how both Chris Ware and Frank Santoro create a page. The use of the grid is central to so much of the story, but so is finding ways to literally destroy it as Jay smashes symbolic shapes. Ultimately, the story winds up being one about self-acceptance, even in the face of one's darkest fears.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

mini-Kus! Of The Week # :11 S! #26: Dada

This is my final Kus! article for a while, as I've caught up to most of their work. For this final installment, I'll be reviewing issue #26 of the Kus! anthology, S!. Doing Dada-inspired work can be a tricky business, especially if one's understanding of Dada as an art movement is limited to surface qualities like absurdity, randomness and negation. Dada is aesthetic, political and personal. It examines the limits of rationality and the ways in which rationality is a slave to convention. It questions assumptions, smashes elitism and is frequently conceptual at a level where one questions the foundations of art. Dada is dead because specific Dada artists created particular works to address specific ideas at precise moments in time. Those moments of time are now gone, and now the work is inert. Dada will never die because there are always new moments to describe and new problems to address. The famous quote goes, "Like everything else, Dada is meaningless." Dada questions its own assumptions and existence the way it questions everything else.

So what are comics inspired by Dada like? They should be personal, they should be readily available to the public (a comic is an excellent format for Dada-inspired art), and they should explore and go beyond our everyday understanding of what comics, lines on paper and text can be. Two of the artists who really nailed it were Marc Bell and Dunja Jankovic. Working in their own styles, they captured different senses of what Dada explored, with the understanding that Dada's various manifestations across the globe had different emphases. Bell has always been an absurdist who has used cultural detritus to inform his jokes, as well as a "ready-made" style of repurposed imagery. In his strip here, he employs his tortured warping of language to create almost entirely nonsensical conversations between different creatures, with a nod of the hat to Dada artist Francis Picabia. There is nothing naive or random about this comic; it's an entirely calculated series of images and words that form a complex and connected set of visual and verbal jokes. Jankovic works in her story, eschewing language in favor of alternating psychedelic black & white patterns and brightly-colored & vaguely phallic shapes. Each is meant to stimulate different parts of the brain; the psychedelia is there to shut down thought and engage in the powerful visual stimulus. The shapes are meant to inspire interpretation, preferably a dirty one. It's part of the gag, and the way Jankovic whips one's sense from one mode of thinking to the next is precisely the kind of disorientation that Dada is meant to produce.

Roman Muradov, another artist already heavily influenced by the shapes of artists like Jean Arp, uses the old Dada cut-up technique to form text that drives the geometric shapes he uses for this slip of a story about body parts. Olaf Ladousse uses the formal qualities of bright blue and pink, reminding the reader of the artificiality of the colors in his construct, to create a gag about Dada. Brie Moreno does something similar with her Peter Max-inspired, brightly colored figures that discover a living version of Raoul Hausmann's famous sculpture The Spirit Of Our Time: a sort of (literal) dummy head representing banality. The characters in the story are literally bitten by this banality in their effort to try to care for it. Jaakko Pallasvuo uses a collage technique by taking an old issue of Neil Gaiman's Sandman and repurposing it as an ode to Marcel Duchamp, especially the way his art was so conceptual. The story is a kind of dream about Duchamp (hence appropriating material about the Dream King), thinking about his prowess playing chess and the way he rushed through his ideas.

Andy Burkholder's absurd breakdown of language and image, of sign and signifier, is funnier still because of the way he also breaks down the idea of the iconic, cartoon image. It's a metacommentary where all artifice is not only laid bare, but the component parts are broken down to such a degree that language is made meaningless and image is also an artificial construct. Vincent Fritz explores shapes and the way the brain immediately applies utility to them, using three circles as a sort of perpetual-motion figure that's having items dropped to it. Sammy Stein comes at this idea from a different angle, as he begins with a tree, then we see it chopped down and sectioned; the sections are sent overseas to then get stacked and covered in concrete, and finally they are placed in a graveyard as a sculpture memorializing Dada. It's a good gag that nonetheless gets at the absurdity of certain processes and the arbitrary nature of monuments.

Daniel Lima brilliantly remixes the dialogue and situation of a George Herriman Krazy Kat page in his own style, with the now-human characters in sacks and toting around doors, creating odd geometries that still has a powerful impact because of the Herriman's deliberate mangling of language that is nonetheless recognizable. Both Liva Kandevica and Jose' Ja Ja Ja focus in mostly on the ways that language gets mangled; in the former case, language is seen as a constant form of aggression, and in the latter, the artist reinterprets famous Dada quotes around his own angular, cluttered imagery. Some of the other comics don't quite zero in on Dada's principles in a recognizable way; a couple (like Dylan Jones and Ernests Klavins) focus in on more of the random images or strange narrative ideas that some associate with something being absurd than specifically Dada. Still, this tightly-edited book is surprisingly challenging and well-considered with regard to its theme, and a number of pieces fit perfectly in the Dada tradition.